Favorite Moments: Game of Chairs

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The video:

Why it’s great:

It’s Sesame Street poking fun of Game of Thrones.

Okay, I guess I’ll have to do more than post a sentence I never thought I’d write. What makes this sketch by Sesame Street great is that it manages to do three things at once:

1. Do a G-rated parody of an R-rated franchise.

2. Make it educational and entertaining at the same time.

3. Throw in plenty of in-jokes that only adult watchers of ‘Thrones’ would get that would fly over the heads of younger viewers.

It’s Reason # 3 that really makes this sketch shine: What 8 year old is going to catch the in-jokes about the bloodiest wedding in human history, the death of the most irritating teenage monarch ever, decapitation, and so much more? None, I’d warrant. You can almost hear the writers giggling as they turn R-rated horror into G-rated jokes, and on a children’s educational show, no less!

 

What we can learn from ‘Limbo with Lyrics’

NOTE: The music video for this song features a child drawn in a stylistic manner repeatedly dying violent deaths.

When it came out in 2010, ‘Limbo’ quickly became one of the most famous independent video games ever created, quickly putting developer Playdead on the map. With it’s beautifully dark art style, bleak aesthetics, brutal violence, and haunting soundtrack, ‘Limbo’ is a masterpiece of grim video games… so, naturally, parodies starting coming our way, including this rather amusing song.

There’s only one lesson to learn from this video, but it’s a good one:

Be cautious when doing making light of real-life horrors

If you haven’t played ‘Limbo’, here are two videos to show you what kind of game it is:

When I initially started this article, I was going to write about how the use of an upbeat tune and comedic sound effects makes for comedy gold when contrasted with very dark media (which it does very well). After all, such a mix has worked before:

However, I then realized that while that combination of lighthearted fun and horrific suffering is funny for fictional stories, it doesn’t work as well when used in real life: A fun Reggie song about concentration camps in Nazi Germany would be rather… tasteless. So would a happy jazz tune about atrocities committed by ISIS to innocent people. It’s easy and fun to parody Jason Vorhees, Darth Vader, and the Alien and Predator, but when it comes to poking fun at torture, genocide, or the mutilation and murder of ordinary people, we walk a very dangerous line between making a point and being tasteless.

Now, nothing is off limits when it comes to comedy. Writers should be free to do dark comedy if they wish, on whatever subject they wish. But discretion is important: Doing a parody song about how millions can’t pay their bills, afford insulin, or even a place to live can be funny because it critiques society and makes a point. Doing a Reggie song about children having limbs hacked off because their parents couldn’t make daily quotas on a rubber plantation probably won’t have the same effect.

When audiences watch or read comedy, they want to laugh and get away from the horrors of the world, if only for a few minutes or even a few seconds. As writers, we have to be careful how we use horror to make them laugh. If we use the horrors of a fictional world, we have more leeway because those horrors don’t really exist. But if we use the evil that surrounds us in everyday life, we must be careful of the point we’re trying to make… unless we’re talking about people who push shopping carts in grocery stores at half a mile an hour and block isles so that no one can get past them. They’re fair game.

Favorite Moments: It’s a Giraffe!

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The video:

Why it’s great:

It takes one of the greatest film moments of the 1990’s and gives Alan Grant the voice of Patrick Starfish. That’s all you need to know.

Okay, maybe a more detailed explanation is in order. I adore how taking the audio from an episode of Spongebob Squarepants changes the mood and feel of such an emotional scene by making it comedic. It’s probably a cosmic law that adding circus music to anything makes it funnier, no matter how dramatic, heartwarming, or awe-inspiring it is, a law I’d love to explore and see if it’s true or not. But until then, I’ll continue chuckling at Dr. Grant acting like an over-excited starfish.

What we can learn from ‘Honest University Commercial’

Today’s video should hit pretty close to home for anyone who’s ever gone to college. While a college degree has long been held as the key to financial and personal success, they’ve been getting more expensive as time goes on, to the point where your great-great-great grandchildren will have to tell their grandchildren that they’ll have to work to pay off your debt. Okay, maybe not, but there’s no denying that college can be a major source of sticker shock. Making matters worse is how many of these universities and colleges produce fancy commercials to make it seem like attending their hallowed halls was a guaranteed path to success, instead of a one-way ticket to catastrophic debt and no guarantees of a job that can even pay the bills.

But what if these for-profit colleges were unashamedly honest about themselves? That’s where the hilarious (or heartbreaking) Honest University Commercial comes in, with three great lessons for writers:

Consider having a shady organization cheerfully promote their vices

We expect commercials – already little more than capitalist propaganda – to be as clean, friendly, and idealized as possible, their producers doing everything they can to convince you to buy their product or service. We, as readers and viewers, expect fictional companies to do the same.

But what if they didn’t?

In our own writing, and if the situation fits (i.e. you’re doing a comedy), try having an evil or shady organization doing a commercial to promote themselves, and not bothering to hide how shady and evil they are, even relishing in pointing out how greedy or corrupt their institution is. That’s what ‘Honest University Commercial’ does so well. We’re used to seeing ‘good’ institutions doing so, or even having evil companies putting on a good face, but when they don’t bother, it’s more memorable, and will stick with our audience. For another great example, look no further than one of the all-time classics, ‘Big Bill Hell’s’ (warning: Video is NOT safe for work).

Consider having people be relentlessly cheerful about their problems

What happens when things aren’t going your way? You get upset. You get angry. You complain. It’s only natural, and no one would begrudge you for needing to vent. But if you were cheerful and upbeat about how life is awful, you’re going to get a lot of baffled looks. You’re not supposed to be happy about getting into crushing debt for the rest of your life, about losing your loved ones, or having an unsustainable lifestyle (unless you’re a spiritual masochist, but we won’t go into that), which makes such a reaction stand out.

For writers (especially comedy writers), having characters be relentlessly cheerful about their problems can be a comedy goldmine because audiences don’t expect them to be that happy. After the initial humor wears off, they’ll want to learn if the unfortunate soul is delusional, crazy, a masochist, or someone who’s about to snap and go on a blood-drenched rampage. Consider poor Stanley Johnson:

Someone who’s happy when anyone else would be miserable makes audiences suspicious because there’s so many things that could be going on behind that stepford smile, giving writers plenty of material to work with. (personally, I think it’s only a matter of time before poor Mr. Johnson straps some chainsaws to that lawnmower, dons a hockey mask, and sets out to take his revenge on capitalism.) 

Consider using humor to make a point about absurdities in everyday life

Humor is great for more than just a quick laugh: the very best humor makes us reflect on life and it’s more absurd situations. ‘Honest University Commercial’ is merciless in pointing out how our higher-learning institutions are more focused on making money and how expensive it is to get a degree than they are about giving their students practical skills and not wasting time on subjects they have no interest in or will ever use (damn you, physical anthropology!). It’s funny, but also thought-provoking and sad at the same time.

There’s no shame in going for humor that’s meant only to make our audiences laugh and feel good for a few moments, but making them laugh while thinking and realizing a deeper meaning will leave a longer, more lasting impact.

The Takeaway

When doing a comedy, consider having an evil or shady organization promote themselves and not caring about broadcasting that they’re evil or shady (or both). For people who are affected by that organization (or the harsh realities of life in general), consider having them be relentlessly cheerful about their problems and difficulties, while using the absurdity of it all to point out how absurd real life can be.

Perfect Moments: ‘Mad Max: Out of Gas’

Once in a while, you come across a moment in a story that is so perfect that it stays in with you for years, or even a lifetime. These are moments that, in my opinion, are flawless; perfect gems of storytelling that cannot be improved in any way, and are a joy to treasure and revisit again and again.

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The video:

‘Mad Max: Out of Gas’

Why it’s perfect:

The post-apocalyptic world of the ‘Mad Max’ universe is a crazy, dangerous, and awesome place, filled with action, crazed lunatics, and some of the most awesome looking vehicles ever to grace the silver screen. It’s a world of desperation and incredible action series as humanity fights to survive and gather all the gazzoline gasoline they need to fuel their engines of war.

But what if all the gazzoline gasoline ran out?

‘Mad Max: Out of Gas’ takes a look at what Max’s world would look life if all the gazzsoline gasoline ran out, and everyone still tried to fight the epic wars and battles of before, but on children’s tricycles. It’s the funniest parody of a post-apocalyptic world I’ve ever seen, and even made my parents – who aren’t action movie fans – laugh while watching.

This world may not be as cool as when it had cars, but it’s certainly a a lot funnier.

Favorite moments: ‘Mad Max Power Wheels’

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The video:

Why it’s great:

Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re writing Hollywood’s next big film, the blockbuster that will finally earn you cinematic immortality and a big boost of friends on your Facebook page. But there’s problem: You’re writing a comedy, and you’re doing a big action scene of, say, soldiers attacking a fortress. The scene’s well-written, but it’s not funny, and nothing you do makes it work. What do you do?

Why not replace the soldiers with kids?

‘Mad Max Power Wheels’ is a near-perfect example of one of my favorite comedy tropes: Having children re-enact adult movies with a comedic bent. We expect to see little kids pretending to be police officers, paramedics, or firefighters when driving around in Power Wheels, not celebrating the release a of an R-rated post-apocalyptic movie by pretending to be hardened road warriors slaughtering each other for gazzoline gasoline. Yet, seeing that contrast between bloody death and ruin and innocent kids having lots of fun makes for comedy gold, and it only gets funnier the more mature, bloody, or gruesome said stories are. Captain Phillips, anyone?

What we can learn from ‘Sarah Conner vs. Jason Vorhees’

Ever since his first appearance as a masked killer in the 1981 film ‘Friday the 13th Part 2,’ Jason Vorhees has become the poster child for slashers who take out horny teenagers as brutally (and creatively) as possible. Being such a staple of pop culture, it was inevitable that he’d eventually face off against other pop icons, the most famous being a fight against Freddy Kruger in 2003’s ‘Freddy vs Jason.’ But many of these fights have taken place in fan videos, featuring Michael Myers, Pennywise the Clown, Leatherface, and even Barney the Dinosaur. Today, we’re taking a look at what would happen if Jason Vorhees took on one of the toughest women in cinema: Sarah Conner from ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day,’ courtesy of Youtube creators WTFLOL

Having a plausible explanation as to why two characters are fighting makes it easier to accept such a fight

When most pop culture characters fight, plot usually comes second to seeing them duking it out. But having a strong reason why two different characters from two different universes are fighting each other makes said fights easier to accept. ‘Conner vs. Jason’ has a particularly good one: Sarah, while en-route to foil Cyberdyne yet again, has car trouble and breaks down near Camp Crystal Lake. While searching for help, she comes across helpless campers being slaughtered by Jason, and rushes in to help. Not only is this a plausible way for the two to meet up, but it also helps us root for Sarah by showing how she doesn’t hesitate to help others in trouble, even if she doesn’t know them.

In our own stories, it’s a good idea to set up the fight in a way that feels logical. While it’s tempting to throw your two (or more) duelists together as quickly as possible, setting up why they’re fighting will make your story more believable, and tell your audience that you’ve thought this out beyond the standard, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be awesome if ______ and ______ fought each other!?”

Consider limiting how much of your intercontinuity fight doesn’t revolve around the title characters fighting

Perhaps more than any other type of story, your audience knows exactly what they want when they see a duel film (watching the title characters fighting each other). They won’t be interested in anything else that doesn’t lead up or add to those moments. Thankfully, ‘Conner vs. Jason’ smartly limits those scenes to Sarah going to Crystal Lake, and the camp’s campers being killed off by Jason in quick order, knowing that audiences don’t have any interest in the campers being developed when they’re only going to be killed off.

In our own stories, while some buildup and setting the scene is always necessary, cutting out everything that isn’t necessary to set things up, or that doesn’t relate directly to two famous characters fighting is a good idea; our audience will thank us for getting to what they came to see in a quick and timely manner.

Consider having the nerd help save the day

Pity the poor nerd: this unfortunate character continues to be relentlessly mocked in pop culture, portrayed as being wimps, cowards, and having zero social skills. Yet, don’t underestimate them: while the nerd in ‘Conner vs. Jason’ first comes off as the stereotypical game-obsessed dweeb, he quickly comes through by using his smarts to tell Sarah about Jason’s only weakness, and risks his own life to lure Jason towards said weakness at great risk to himself (and saving Sarah in the process).

While it’s easy to use the nerd as an easy source of humor and comic relief, it’s much better to have them have hidden depths: Nerds may have a love of all things video games, movies, anime, and cartoons, but they’re still people with weaknesses and strengths, and showing those, whether it’s bravery, strength, or resourcefulness will help make them memorable.

Consider poking fun at a character’s mythology in your crossover fight

Little moments of humor can often be the most memorable parts of any story, and in a crossover fight – where drama and strict adherence to the rules of either universe are put aside for the sake of awesomeness – poking fun at both story’s mythologies can make funny moments even funnier: my favorite here comes when the nerd loudly yells about smoking and having lots of premarital sex with naked women, causing Jason to immediately ignore Sarah and head after the nerd. Another has the Terminator, after blowing Jason to pieces, saying his classic trademark about how he’ll be back. Is it cheesy? Yes, but it’s funny, and a good reminder on that we watch these crossovers to see how awesome they are; having some humor – even if it’s slightly out of character – only makes a fun experience even more enjoyable.

Avoid having someone come in and steal a victory at the end of a crossover fight

While having the Terminator suddenly show up to save the day at the end of the video is undeniably awesome (The Terminator vs Jason? Heck yeah!), it does have the unfortunate effect of making the whole ‘Sarah vs. Jason’ fight somewhat pointless, as neither of them determine the outcome. While it’s common for crossover fights to end in a draw (so as to not offend fans of either character by having them be defeated), having neither side winning, or having both off each other, having a third party arrive and end the fight by themselves feels like a cop out. Even Freddy vs Jason made this error by having one of the teens decapitate Freddy at the climax of the big fight, instead of Jason.

When writing our own crossover fights, having them end because of the results of the fighter’s efforts – instead of an outside force – will avoid the feeling of the fighters and the audience being cheated out of a fair match. If you must bring in a third party, foreshadow it before the fight, or at the very beginning (such as how Sarah Conner helps Pops during the Terminator vs Terminator duel in ‘Terminator: Genysis’), but still avoid it if you can.

An Alternate Universe version of ‘Sarah Conner vs. Jason Vorhees’ that learned from its mistakes

While en-route to take out a subdivision of Cyberdyne, Sarah Conner’s car breaks down outside Camp Crystal Lake. Setting out to search for help, she hears helpless campers being slaughtered and runs to help. While she’s too late to save everyone, she does save one nerd from Jason. The two quickly hatch a plan to lure Jason to the camp’s lake, eventually managing to get them there, thanks to the nerd’s smarts, and Sarah’s combat skills.

However, when trying to knock Jason into the water, Sarah – injured from her fight – runs out of ammo for her weapons. Using herself as a battering ram, she tackles Jason, managing to shove him into the water.

The nerd anxiously tries to decide whether he should jump in after Sarah to save her. Then she appears: Injured and bleeding badly, but alive. With Jason defeated and trapped at the bottom of the lake, the nerd helps her back to the camp’s main building to patch her up and call for help. Along the way, he asks if she’s interested in a date, to which she replies that he’d better not hold his breath.